Groups charge censorship over relocation of paintings

Anti-censorship groups recently appealed to the University of Wisconsin-Stout not to remove or relocate two 80-year-old paintings that depict First Nations people and French fur traders.

UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer said the paintings were being relocated for display under “controlled circumstances” because of student complaints.

Meyer said Native American students feel the paintings symbolize a time when their land and possessions were taken from them, according to the AP. The school is moving the paintings because of their potential for harmful effect and because they could reinforce racial stereotypes.

Anti-censorship groups responded to the decision, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, which was contacted by a UW-Stout professor.

“Shrouding or moving the painting does not educate anyone or stimulate any learning or dialogue. American history and representations of that history can be ugly and offensive,” said Stout English and philosophy professor Timothy Shiell. “But hiding them doesn’t change the past or the future.”

NCAC contacted Meyer on Aug. 5 and urged his administration to reconsider.

Cal Peters created the paintings in 1936. The 6-foot-by-18-foot murals were commissioned under the Works Progress Administration and depict a French fort and fur traders with Native Americans canoeing the Red Cedar River.

The earliest news reports on the issue said UW-Stout planned to place the paintings into storage.

That news prompted a series of complaints from conservative commentators and right-wing politicians about “political correctness.”

But the decision to relocate the paintings also brought reaction from more serious sources, like the NCAC. It said historical work like Peters’ paintings provides an opportunity to engage with and reflect on the lasting and important questions raised by these traces of historical memory. “At a time when the lingering effects of systemic prejudice and racism continue to be felt this is of particular importance,” NCAC said.

Later, after the university announced plans not to remove but to relocate the paintings, NCAC director of programs Svetlana Mintcheva said, “Encounters with an often brutal history are part of the educational process, censoring stories that don’t feel good is not. What’s worse is the disrespectful and patronizing assumption that future students need to be shielded from these historical realities.”

Meyer told Wisconsin Public Radio the decision was not based on political correctness or censorship. He said, “So, we want to make sure that, really, what we decorate our hallways with and what we put in our hallways is consistent with our values to try to attract more Native Americans to the university.”

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